11 April 2018

Traces of DNA from old books to detail the history of livestock


A new project will scrutinize thousands of parchments to study the relationship between hundreds of years of livestock production and historical writings composed on dried animal skin. According to one University of Copenhagen researcher, they hold a treasure of information.

Animal skin parchment

Beasts to Craft (B2C) is a University of Copenhagen project that seeks to document the biological and artisanal archives found in parchments, so as to map the intertwined history of animal breeding and parchment production (Foto: Matthew Collins)

Animal skin parchment, once used as a writing material to produce books and documents, is widely available in libraries and archives around the world.

It seems that the parchments may have more history to reveal than the words scribed upon them. A new UCPH project, Beasts to Craft (B2C), has been awarded 2.5 million Euro from the European Research Council to investigate long-overlooked connections between parchment writings and livestock production through the ages.

"Instead of simply examining these books for written content, we are looking at them as zoological molecular archives that contain vast amounts of information about the development of livestock production and craftsmanship from the 6th through 20th centuries," explains Matthew Collins, an archaeology professor at the University of Copenhagen’s Natural History Museum and head of research for B2C.

Along with his fellow researchers, he will analyze thousands of parchments and extract materials for analysis, just as would be done for archaeological studies of ancient bone.

“We hope to discover how livestock breeding and animal husbandry altered the genetic and breeding history of animals over time. For example, the parchments might allow us to pinpoint when animals became fatter, as this would have resulted in poorer quality parchment," says Matthew Collins.

Animal skin parchment

Studying skin quality and disease

Parchments contain many layers of information about livestock production and more. As such, a variety of specialists and departments will collaborate, from archaeologists to historians, to writing experts, livestock experts and preservation specialists.

Each will contribute their specific field of knowledge towards the overall study of the DNA and molecular material collected from the parchments. One of the specialists, a zooarchaeology expert, will investigate whether there is any evidence of pathogens - diseases - on the skins.

The archaeologist will compare analyses of an animal species with its habitat to geographically "map" the information garnered from the parchments to assemble a more complete picture.

Head of Preservation Marie Vest at the Royal Library, describes how conservators will visually analyze the medieval parchments:

"We will look at follicle patterns, skin anatomy and other valuable metrics that say something about the animal type, its size and what age it was before being slaughtered and having its skin crafted into parchment,” adding that researchers will be able to use this information to learn more about production methods and how these transformed over time and varied from place to place.